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10 x 11 in.
93 pp., 24 color and 12 b&w illus., 2 maps

Out of print


Historic Ranches of Texas

Text by Lawrence Clayton
Paintings by J. U. Salvant


Back to Book Description


Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Artist's Notes
  • Four Sixes Ranch (6666)
  • Green Ranches
  • Iron Mountain Ranch
  • King Ranch
  • Lambshead Ranch (J. A. Matthews)
  • Matador Land and Cattle Company
  • Pitchfork Ranch
  • Swenson Ranches
  • Waggoner Ranch
  • XIT Ranch
  • Y.O. Ranch
  • Ytturia Ranch
  • Bibliography


An aura of romance clings, even in the present time, to the ranching tradition of the American West. Perhaps nowhere is that notion stronger than in Texas, where ranching as we know it today in the United States developed, as did cowboys, those legendary, almost mythic, figures to whom ranching gave a reason to be. The cowboy has dominated the fiction and film depicting the cattle business in Texasfor ranching is basically cattle ranching in the minds of most observers despite large numbers of sheep, goats, and horses on the ranges. For the astute men and women to whom raising cattle to feed a beef-hungry population is a business, cowboying is only part of that life. In some cases ranching may have become a passion pursued despite monetary loss, but the long-lasting ranches survived because smart managers utilized sound business practices. Often a single generation has contended with many factors, climatic as well as economic. Especially is this true of long-lived ranches, for many an operation has gone broke after a decade or two because of drought, glutted markets, low prices, or poor management.

Ranches that have survived over several generations have done so only because of several fortuitous conditions. Perhaps primary is the availability of resources to continue the operation. Money from oil often provided that necessity and allowed the ranch to survive. But equally as crucial to the survival of a ranch is a family member both able and willing to take on the demanding job of managing the affairs of the ranch. Vision for the future and ranching sense to handle the present are two important assets not always found in the children of ranchers. It may be one or more of the grandchildren who have taken up the task. Often children raised on the ranch see only the hard work, isolation, and loneliness. When succession skips a generation, however, a grandchild who may have visited the ranch only periodically but still has the capacity to be a successful ranch manager may take up the task. It is not uncommon for children to inherit a ranch and sell it or be forced to sell part ofit to pay the inheritance taxes. More than one has lost the family fortune through ill-advised investments. The future is always a matter of concern for a ranching family.

When one thinks of great ranches, one often thinks of successful ranching families, and family names loom large in the history of these sometimes enormous spreads of land that stretched, in earlier days, to a million acres or more. Such names as Kleberg, King, Burnett, Swenson, Schreiner, Slaughter, Scharbaugh, Goodnight, Adair, Waggoner, Reynolds, Matthews, and others stand as great ranching names in Texas. And for good reasons. These names represent families that put together, and weathered hard times to hold together, enormous tracts of property on which were raised quality cattle and horses and, in marginal areas, sheep and goats. Ranchers promoted the features of one breed, or some particular crossing of breeds, to develop cattle adapted to ranges in a given area. In one case, a ranch developed its own breed. The offspring of famous Quarter Horse bloodlines associated with ranches have graced roping arenas, cutting pens, and race tracks, but, more important, they have provided cowboys the best horses available to work cattle in the sometimes huge pastures on these ranches.

Several consistent factors crop up in the stories of ranches that survive. One of these is the vision of the founder. Charles Schreiner saw a dream in the Texas Hill Country; young William Henry Green saw his future in an eight-thousand-acre stretch of well-watered open range along Hubbard Creek; or a board member or director of a corporation had a view of a ranching empire in Texas. Often someone with shrewd business sense saw the chance to make a fortune and brought the notion to reality.

Another key factor was money to establish the operation. A fortune eventually might be generated by the investment, but unless the rancher started in a modest way, a small fortune could be required to begin—to control or later buy the range, to purchase stock, to hire men, to build fences and corrals and houses and barns, to wait for the herd to multiply and the calves to grow to marketing size, and then to get the animals to market at a time when the price was the best possible to produce a positive financial return.

The stories of the sources of this money are interesting to pursue. Some of it came from outside the United States. For example, an investment group from Scotland provided the money for the Matador. As much as thirty million dollars of foreign capital, mostly from England and Scotland, was invested between 1875 and 1885. In other cases the money flowed from commerce and finance within the United States. Schreiner and Swenson generated their money from the mercantile and business world. The construction of the state capitol in Austin provided the financial impetus for the XIT. Judge J. A. Matthews gained his backing by forming his own investment group of local men and using their money to purchase cattle to populate the vast ranges he already controlled. Later the land and cattle were divided among the investors. The Greens wrested their resources from the land itself by hard work and frugality. Each ranch has a similar but somewhat different origin.

Oil production later had a huge impact on success. Texas oil millionaires became legendary, a breed apart from financial tycoons in other states. And with good reason. When Texas joined the Union, it retained private ownership of most of the land and the minerals beneath it, all the way down to the earth's core. Unlike many other western states, Texas has no vast tracts of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. State and federal parks are the closest to that found here. This oil production funded more than one ranching operation in Texas, for there is definitely a strong link between oil wealth and successful ranching. "Black gold" sometimes provides money for acquisition of land and livestock as well as improvements on that land, and oil makes surviving at ranching a much more achievable goal.

Lack of water and a paucity of suitable forage were problems that all ranchers had to overcome. The vast stretches of semi-arid and poorly watered lands could support some livestock, but water within easy walking distance is essential for productive livestock operations.

Finding cattle suitable for the range of a given ranch was also a problem. The King Ranch developed its own with Brahma imported from India to crossbreed. Others settled on a line of Herefords. Most eventually rejected the other prominent choice of British breeds of that day, the Durham or shorthorn, and later the Angus breed found widespread favor. These British breeds were first crossbred with Longhorn stock by necessity because only bulls were imported at first. Later other breeds came along—Charolais, Limousin, and even Japanese breeds. But most ranchers still prefer at least some reliance on the British breeds, mainly Hereford. A common cross these days is a balance of Hereford, Angus, and Brahma, but Longhorn blood is still evident; especially will the mottled hides of part-Longhorn herds be seen as the result of breeding Longhorn bulls to first-calf heifers. Some ranches find the offspring make hearty, thrifty range cows, which when bred to Hereford bulls provide a one-fourth Longhorn calf with classic Hereford markings, large frame, and excellent beef potential.

The problems to be solved often were beyond the reach of individual ranchers, and solutions had to come from outside, perhaps from another rancher. The King Ranch personnel are sometimes credited with the discovery that Texas fever, a mysterious but deadly disease, was caused by a tick and that dipping stock in insecticide-laced water in a cement or stone vat was the solution. The practice became widely established, and a potentially disastrous situation that caused anger, frustration, and fear disappeared.

Some animals indigenous to the West created problems. Prairie dogs, small mammals that yelp like a dog, burrowed holes into the prairies, creating hazards that could be fatal to a horse and rider. The creatures ate huge amounts of grass, and their tunnels caused water to run into the ground rather than spread over the surface to nourish the grass or fill tanks. Range freed from the pests supported from 10 percent to 25 percent more cattle, and ranchers undertook eradication programs with a vengeance. Wolves and coyotes also were a menace. Wolves were especially destructive because they could hamstring a large animal and then devour it. A bounty system encouraged their elimination. Coyotes, despite the romance sometimes associated with them, are still a hazard to small animals, especially calves, sheep, goats, and some game birds. These creatures have adapted to modern life in a remarkable way.

Medical problems included the fatal black leg, for which a vaccine must be administered to young calves; stomach worms; grubs; dwarfism in Hereford cattle; and screwworms. Perhaps no single other factor changed life on a ranch as did eliminating the screwworm, for doctoring calves for the life-threatening worms caused the cattle to be wild and kept cowboys on the prowl in pastures in the warm months. Brucellosis threatened the industry but was controlled. Uncontrolled, almost any one of these diseases would have ended ranching as we know it. Other diseases continue to threaten, such as antiplasmosis and leptospirosis, diseases that cause cows to abort their fetuses and for which ranchers must vaccinate.

Contemporary problems may be solved with old solutions. The high cost of gasoline and equipment may bring back the chuck wagon to save on fuel, pickups, trailers, and the like. We may once again see mules and work horses become even more popular than in recent years when their use has been growing. New wagons are being produced now because of the demand by wagon clubs and trail riding groups. One wonders if the cowboys will adjust to spending time out on the wagon as their predecessors did. If they are true cowboys, they will do it. And then the question arises of whether the wives can adjust, or will cowboys be once again forced into bachelorhood. Working this way will require more men and more horses on large ranches. We may once again see many ranches getting out the Dutch ovensand soogans, or bedrolls, and loading the wagons twice a year for work on the range. This development may encourage forming smaller ranches with less distance to cover, and in that way the spreads will be more manageable.

Size is important in a ranch. From the King Ranch's present-day vast stretches of over 800,000 acres and the Waggoner's 500,000 acres, even these contemporary ranches seem dwarfed by the three million acres of the glory days of the XIT and the Matador. The minimum size to deserve the label "ranch" varies from region to region, depending principally upon rainfall and quality of soil. In East Texas, where the rich creek and river bottoms may support a cow per acre in the lush growing seasons, a ranch may have only a few hundred acres and still support a sizable herd of livestock. In some parts of West Texas, near Albany, for example, a minimum of ten thousand acres is needed for a suitable operation, for a cow needs twenty to twenty-five acres to find sufficient grazing. In far West Texas it may take three or four times that many acres per cow.

A ranch today will typically have a horse pasture, often one pasture reserved for holding cattle gathered at shipping time, and ample pastures to run the herd of several hundred to several thousand mother cows and/or steers, numbers sufficient to generate enough income to pay the expense of the operation. Across the large ranches are camps. Each usually has a house with a set of pens, a horse pasture, and a feed house. Here a cowboy and his family live so that he can look after the stock in the pastures near the house and feed them during the winter. He also carefully watches the availability of forage for the stock and monitors precious rainfall.

During the open-range period, cattle grazed on grass growing on the finest soil the state could offer, from the well-watered coastal plains to the deep soils of the Texas high plains. With the discovery of irrigation water on the high plains, population density became greater, and the best land was sold off and put into cultivation or otherwise removed from grazing. Then cattle were forced to marginal land with shallow soil, too much change in elevation for plowing, or too stony for growing crops. This kind of land is good for little else than grazing livestock or providing habitat for wild game. These open spaces are apt to remain in such use because of geologic features and rainfall insufficient to support dense populations of people. Hundreds of large ranches in existence for decades, some for more than a hundred years, are scattered over the less populous areas of the state, particularly from the brushy South Texas plains, in the portion of Texas west of Fort Worth, and in the northern Panhandle. Many of these are viable working operations maintaining the ranching traditions of Texas.

Name changes connected with the various ranches occur when ranch daughters marry. Ranching families often unite in this way to form larger ranching empires, which are later split among descendants. But the family line will have the orientation and resources to continue to expand and contract to fit the markets and land available by sale or lease. It is fortunate that these families continue in the ranching business. Founding new ranch dynasties today is unlikely because of the difficulty of financing. This inaccessibility makes ranching even more exotic and desirable to many of us.

The sketches in this book present several prominent ranches in Texas both large and small, comparatively speaking, as well as some no longer in business as the original organization. The format resembles J. Evetts Haley's excellent book The Heraldry of the Range, a study including seven ranches, two of which are included here-the XIT and Matador. Certainly not all the historic ranches in Texas and the Southwest are in the present collection, either.

Several factors influenced selection of these ranches. Recognizable name was one. Geographic distribution was also a consideration so as to reflect ranching practices from various parts of the state. Availability of resources or the willingness of ranch owners to cooperate posed a limiting factor and caused inclusion of some and exclusion of others. With these items in mind, J. U. Salvant and I, with the help of Frankie Westbrook, our editor at the University of Texas Press, queried various people about possible candidates for inclusion. The list originally contained some twenty entries of ranches or categories for ranches, such as "Spanishinfluenced operation," and other such criteria. We then prepared a list of those that just could not be excluded from a look at major historic Texas ranches. The XIT was at the top of the list and remained despite its demise decades ago. It also serves as an example that even in Texas something can be "too big." The relationship of the ranch to the state capitol also argued for its inclusion. The Matador, because of its relationship with foreign investors, made the final list even though the ranch currently operated under its name is but a shadow of the former giant spread across the western and northern parts of Texas. The Y.O.'s current operation and diversity, especially its reputation for exotic game and its lack of oil resources, argued for its place on the list. The King Ranch, still a viable ranching and farming operation, is too integral a part of the Texas ranching picture to be excluded. It is the only one to develop its own breed of cattle.

The four ranches across the northern part of the state—Waggoner, Four Sixes, Pitchfork, and Swenson, not widely separated geographically—have colorful but quite different stories and have experienced different fortunes. They were far too prominent to ignore.

The Matthews and Green ranches, quite close together in location, nonetheless have diverse development and represent a pocket of ranching culture still strong and vibrant.

The Yturria Ranch represents one of the ranches still belonging to the Spanish heritage to which all of Texas ranching owes its roots, and one of the current owners graciously consented to be included.

Iron Mountain Ranch serves as an example of ranching in the Big Bend area and is only one of several in that particularly rich ranching region.

Written material on some of these ranches is available, as a check of the bibliography will show. Others, however, have little or no printed histories at all. The stories of the Yturria, Iron Mountain, and Green are not well documented, but they have faithful admirers who have preserved the stories and are willing to make the information available for print. In no case were the contemporary details available from printed sources. This information came from people familiar with the operation of the ranch in question.

At least as interesting as why some ranches are here is why others are not. In some cases the ranch was not included because its story seemed much like one or more already included. In other cases ranchers opted not to be included for personal reasons. Owners of other ranches felt they wanted to retain their own stories for their own use. Others were not included because of lack of space. We hope that other volumes will make up this deficiency.

Included for each ranch, where the information is available, are details of the location, the founding, the growth from the original days to the present, the individuals who figured prominently in the development of the ranch, the amount of land included, the brands associated with the ranch, the breeds of cattle, and the bloodlines of the horses.Each ranch is represented artistically by the paintings of Joan Salvant. Her watercolors represent landmarks particularly important to the heritage of the ranch. Each painting embodies the essence or spirit of that ranch in a way that can be achieved only through art, where one can feel the underlying reality and romance that have come to be associated with that spread.

In conclusion, those readers searching for a revisionist text to debunk the admittedly often romanticized view of ranching will need to look elsewhere. I have tried to make the points about each ranch clearly and to support the statements either from printed texts or from interviews, and I hope I have succeeded in not being sentimental. But this is not an effort in revisionist history. I strove for a middle of the road depiction based on the facts and interpretation as well as on my own views.


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